Set in the vast Congolese national park of the same name, “Virunga,”
the debut feature doc by Orlando (“Skateistan”) von Einsiedel, an Indie Spirit and Oscar doc nominee, is an
exhilarating balance of politics, ecology, market forces and utter corruption,
all of which play out across the landscape.
Coveted by an oil-seeking corporation called SOCO, it’s also home to the 800 or
so mountain gorillas left in the world, who are little more than an
inconvenient obstacle for the British company — which, as if delivered to von Einsiedel by central casting, is morally
bankrupt, oblivious to history, and a casual creator of misery upon which
it feeds like a flea.
“Virunga” is streaming on Netflix.
“Who gives a
fuck about a fucking monkey?” asks a self-described mercenary in the SOCO
employ. To the movie’s credit, it makes a very good case why everyone should —
unless he or she is a stockholder, or a soulless cretin.
“Virunga” begins with a recap of 150 years of African
catastrophe — European exploitation, CIA coups, general western-influenced
mayhem — and then segues to the gorillas. It’s a jarring transition: Having just been reminded
about the human toll that Africa’s wealth has cost over the last century and
a half, are we supposed to get worked up over apes? Yes, and not just for purely
moral reasons: The preservation of the animals means increased tourism;
increased tourism means local employment; local employment means self-sufficiency and a possible end to the
exploitation that’s been haunting the Congo since Leopold II of Belgium was
cutting people’s hands off.
Speaking of which: Nothing is made of it by von Einsiedel,
but one of the real heroes of the film is park director Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian, and as one of his Congolese antagonists describes him, a member of the
Belgian “royal family.” His efforts to resist both SOCO and the rebel groups in
its employ — the surreptitious footage taken by war correspondent Melanie Gouby
catches SOCO’s minions red-handed — are nothing short of valiant (de Merode, 43, was seriously wounded by gunmen just last
week in an ambush outside the park.) Whether his
actions stem from a regal strain of guilt will be something about which the
viewer will have to wonder.
There’s no question, though, that “Virunga” is first-rate,
both in its gimlet-eyed storytelling and visual elegance. Von Einsiedel has at
his disposal heart-stopping combat footage, and spy-thriller-level stuff from
the secretly-filming park ranger Rodrigue Katemba, and from Gouby — who, acting
above and beyond the call of duty and/or journalism, goes out to dinner with
SOCO’s local malefactor Julian Lechenault, who recites opinions that place him
among the African-exploiting arch-villains of the last three centuries. “The
best solution, effective for everyone, is to recolonize these countries,” he
says. How else to gain free access to the oil that lay beneath the Virunga
park? Africans, after all, “can’t manage themselves … they’re like children,
Virunga becomes a
crucible of hope, misery and greed, and the gorillas — several of whom live at
the park center, with the inspiring caregiver Andre Baume — are a walking
recrimination to western excess. As captured by von Einsiedel, they are also
beautiful, sorrowful and suggest at certain moments that their ancestors
evolved into the wrong animals.